If you ask me

Why the IET has established a new panel to focus on innovation and emerging technologies. Also, the media profile of data centres is riding surprisingly high of late.

How green is your valley?

There's often a gap between idea creation and mass adoption. People speak of the 'valley of death' where funding for demonstration and scale-up is insufficient to support market success. Getting through this valley is difficult - and support is often needed from colleagues, peers and government.

In my various roles, I see innovation from different perspectives. My 'day job' is director of global research with Arup, a company known for innovative large-scale engineering solutions such as China's Bird's Nest Olympic stadium and the UK Channel Tunnel rail link. These are major projects, and Arup is a large international group, but even with this level of backing innovation requires support and energy.

At Arup innovation is celebrated, recognised and encouraged by the corporate culture, embedded through three directors responsible for foresight, research and skills. This gives us a long-term view that with thought leadership, knowledge generation and deployment in the practices means we can navigate 'the valley' successfully.

The UK Technology Strategy Board, where I am a member of the governing board, has a very different remit. Perhaps it can be seen as an innovation GPS system designed to prevent good ideas getting lost.

The Board is a non-departmental public body, with a budget of £1bn and a mission to 'connect and catalyse' business success through innovation. Funding is awarded, using a peer review process, to industry and university collaborators. This is either challenge-driven, technology-driven or for innovation culture development. Subject interest groups in the shape of Knowledge Transfer Networks and staffing partnerships known as Knowledge Transfer Partnerships are examples of the latter. We may soon see innovation driven by government-led strategic procurement.

But what about the IET? How can it best help organisations and individuals traverse this valley? There is already a lot going on, as was highlighted at the recent launch of the new Innovation and Emerging Technologies (I&ET) Panel. I am pleased to be the chair of the group, which has the remit of advising the trustees and members of the Institution on this important topic - providing new maps of the 'valley'.

So what next? The I&ET panel will seek to advise the Institution on best practice by benchmarking public and private sector innovation strategies around the globe. We will commission and author position papers, advising the engineering and technology profession and UK government on innovation strategy, and organise workshops, masterclasses and conferences to stimulate an innovation culture in the IET and its membership.

I was surprised to read recently that as much knowledge is generated in each generation as in all previous history. Could it be true, and if so where is all the innovation? And what exactly is innovation? It's clearly more than just research or invention; it's about deployment, adoption and wealth-generation as well as creativity. The IET has a long history of generating knowledge, and is going from strength to strength. How can we also best support innovation - should we be a guiding light, a GPS system or a map and compass?

Jeremy Watson, IET Innovation & Emerging Technologies Panel

Centre of attention

It always comes as a slight shock when enterprise IT issues get picked up by the mainstream media, so I have been reeling from the broadcast of not one but two BBC Radio 4 items about data centres. Normally the big broadcasters' interest in IT is pretty routinely defined: Microsoft/Bill Gates' billions, consumer broadband, computer viruses, dot-com bubble, lost laptops, e-fraud… and, er, that's about it.

So hearing an item on R4's populist consumer affairs programme 'You And Yours' about how the Internet faces meltdown because London data centres will be starved of power by the demands of the 2012 Olympics was exceptional; especially since the expert voice was the managing director of data centre specialist Migration Solutions, and not some know-nothing pundit from PC World.

The other surprise data centres item ran on iPM, Eddie Mair's things-Internety supplement to R4's flagship teatime news programme. It was about how the surge in popularity of YouTube and iPlayer is causing data centres to overheat as their servers strain to process all the high-bandwidth Web traffic that streamed video generates, and thereby boosts their carbon dioxide emissions.

Of course, the 'How green is your data centre?' debate is old news to the IT industry, and the green IT lobby at large, and in the plenary sessions at green IT industry conferences the magic bullets fly thick and fast. Greening IT is a highly complex undertaking that involves much more than addressing the IT function in isolation.

Last month, the Carbon Trust announced a partnership with the British Computer Society to develop an Open Source software tool that should help enterprises better understand energy use within data centres. The software will deliver outputs that data centre operators can use to manage total costs of ownership and energy efficiency on 'a per-service or per-application' basis.

Any initiative that seeks to improve energy efficiency is welcome in a world where there are still dunderheads who don't switch off their PCs, monitors, and printers when not in use. But if they are to succeed, and not be seen as so much 'greenwash', worthy initiatives must include a range of fundamental concomitant factors.

For instance, they should stop characterising IT as innately carbon culpable, and recognise the fact that the racks of servers are only as 'dirty' as the processing demands that are placed upon them. And although data centres exist primarily to house IT, computer equipment accounts for a small slice of the energy consumed: air conditioning, lighting, security and access systems, power supply infrastructure, and uninterruptible power supplies - these gobble up the bulk of the Watts.

This means that a truly effective data centre carbon-management model has to be multi-disciplinary, and be capable of combining expertise from all of the different professional skillsets that co-exist under the data centre roof - electrical engineering, power engineering, architectural engineering, thermal science, telecommunications, and not just IT.

James Hayes, IT Editor

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